Serving up CRM

As competition in the Middle East grows, companies are making more of an effort to keep their customers and partners happy. One of the cornerstones of Customer Relationship Management solutions is the call centre—but who is getting the best service from new deployments?

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By  Guy Mathew Published  November 4, 2001

Changing attitudes to CRM|~||~||~|Customer relationship management (CRM) is a popular subject among businesses seeking to improve their customer retention figures at present. The uncertain state of the world economy, especially in hi-tech markets, means that companies are realising like never before that the customer is king. Such is the conventional wisdom in management circles. The past year or so has seen that way of thinking start to penetrate Middle Eastern markets, and call centres, commonplace in the US and Europe, have become a basic building block of companies’ CRM strategies. Their presence has been a top-down initiative in the big vendors but more of slow realisation of the way the wind is blowing among channel companies.

The banks are doing it, television stations, you name it, the players in every industry are keen to prove their interest in their customers by providing better communications with them. After all, their revenues have to come from somewhere. IT is a little different though. Having the channel has caused companies, large and small, to examine their strategies carefully to see exactly what it is that they need to offer. It is no good having one engineer on the end of a phoneline if your business is implementing country-wide networked telephony solutions. Equally, you don’t need sixty technology graduates on the line waiting to tell a housewife to plug her modem into the wall socket. As a result each company finds its own best-fit solution.

For an enterprise like HP that is an outsourcing arrangement with a local partner, in this case CTS services, part of the Cupola Group. It has fourteen agents at present, most with a technical background. “HP worldwide believes in outsourcing,” says Wissam Kamal-Eddine, customer care manager for HP Middle East. “Yes, when you get a quote it can seem fairly high, but when you consider the costs of doing it in-house, the hiring, the overheads and the set up costs, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

For HP, CRM policy is determined from the top down so there is less room for local innovation but for enterprises that do not have a unified strategy there are many options. In the Middle East the channel has traditionally had more of a role than elsewhere and it is channel players who are picking up on the need for effective CRM.

At Seven Seas they believe this is part of a change in the way business is done in the region. As Shirin Motammed, channel marketing executive, explains: “The mindset is starting to change. As competition has grown people have realised that you have to take care of the customer and that is where call centres come in.”

Motammed said that value added services are the key to delivery of this level of customer service and they have to be “seamless integrated”, i.e. companies want to speak to customers through whatever medium they choose.

||**||Integrating channels|~||~||~|Ayman Abouseif of Oracle points out, there is no point in having a call centre as a stand-alone solution. “It is a technology to connect voice and data so you have to plan what you are going to do with it. Basically, a call centre is a delivery centre for business applications, be they marketing, technical support or sales.”

Oracle has one of the most comprehensive CRM solutions on the market and wants to implement it in the Middle East. HP will soon be ready to roll-out their Oracle solution worldwide and Compaq is already a customer.

Adnan Al-Falah, sales director at Tech Data, is skeptical of how useful vendors call centres actually are because he believes they are trying to do too much. “What the vendors are trying to do is link the entire chain of vendor, distributor, resller and end user, and it is full of holes; it is only as strong as the weakest link. I’m providing information and resellers are coming back to me. I’m here to provide certain things and if you need a call centre that’s what you’ll get and no one else from Tech Data will bother you.”

The question resellers want answered is how is it going to affect them? Both Compaq and HP have found that there is no point having centres that are there purely for customer support when they can deliver sales as well. “We envisioned it [the call centre] to be a pure cost operation at first, just there to make sure our customers are happy, but after about eight months we implemented the pre-sales cycle and the sales are still growing,” said Kammal-Eddine.

This is not at the expense of resellers because the aim is not pure telesales, but to generate leads which are then passed on to the resellers. CTS assesses calls for quality of service and the call to order ratio (COR), the number of sales completed from leads given, as part of their contract with HP. Kazam Raza Alwan, general manager of CTS, acknowledged the possibility for conflict with resellers, but he believes that it has been resolved. “We have to keep the resellers happy even though they are not directly paying us. We decide on area of specialty and which resellers the leads should go to, obviously this must not be too lopsided, and explain how we are going to support them. We discuss this with the client channel marketing manager and resellers to make sure they feel they are getting value.”

||**||Targeting the right person|~||~||~|Compaq has a different approach to call centre management. The company prefers to manage its call centre completely in-house. Karen Bell-Wright, CRM manager Middle East, says: “I’m a huge advocate of in-house call centres as part of the sales team. Outsource certain skills like management but you want people in the centre to feel part of the company. If there are changes in the company they [call centre staff] need to be part of it.”

Bell-Wright emphasises the changes that come with CRM implementation. “It calls for change – there should be a direct link to how you go to market. Having people remote is not so good, it has to be as seamless as possible.”

She also sees the benefits of using call centres as profit drivers. To begin with Compaq’s call centre had no targets but the company philosophy is that they should increase efficiency by being integrated with the sales team. On the question of the role of partners, Bell Wright says that Compaq was hesitant to begin with because of the possibility of a direct vendor-customer relationship, but that a lot of them were thinking about their own call centres and have benefited from seeing Compaq’s approach first hand.

Tech Data is a channel partner for a number of global vendors and it has just rolled out its own call centre. Steve Lockie, general manager, does not see so much sales activity at the call centre as others in Europe. “If you look at our call-to-order ratio compared to that in Europe, ours is one of the lowest. That is because customers in Europe are using the website so simple queries are sorted out there, rather than by the agent, which makes our guys a lot more efficient.”

Lockie is most concerned about the issue of information provision. He describes it as a core issue for Tech Data. “We asked our partners what would get us more business and they came back with accessibility. Basically they need someone to talk to.”

Al Falah is more blunt: “My call centre is only availible to my reseller community. It is a direct link between me and them with no one else involved.” On the issue of vendors call centres Al Falah is very skeptical: “They [vendors] collect a lot of information but because there is always human intervention, mistakes creep in and people end up with the wrong information. It ends up causing a lot of frustration between the vendor, the distributor, the reseller and the end-user.”

What Al-Falah is picking up on is the danger of vendors trying to use call centres for too many functions. However, he believes that this is doomed to failure as it does not deliver the integrated solution it promises. What Tech Data is doing, he says, is simple and will influence resellers and be a driver of behaviour.

Resellers reactions seem to be genearlly positive. Karim Morawala, also from Seven Seas, referred to Tech Data’s new call centre: “We need information so it is very useful to be able to get hold of someone who has specialised knowledge when you cannot meet with your account executive.” Ali Malekpour of Four Star was similarly enthustiastic: “If you have to explain the same thing four times to four different peole it is a waste of time so the call centre is useful because it acts as a focal point.” Clearly, the concept of call centres is one which is overdue in the eyes of resellers.

The fact that companies like Tech Data and SevenSeas have their own call centres is indicative of change in expectation from customers. It is not good enough for companies to let people figure out problems for themselves. There seems to be some debate or difference of opinion on how best to approach the issue, in-house or outsourced, training done in or out and just who it should be focused on, consumers or business or resellers or some combination of all three.

As Bell-Wright says: “We’re not going without the resellers. We’re enhancing our sales and service effort and that means using knowledge that partners have about customers and preserving relationships.”
Whatever option companies take, the truth is that CRM is now a business fact and call centres are an integral part of that. You could even call them customer relationship management centres because they are the medium that customers will use to interact with your company most often. In which case it is important to ensure that the management and systems behind it are up to the high standards required to make it a success.||**||

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